On Teaching, Revolution, and “Death in Venice”


Now that the new school year is upon us, and many of us college teachers are leading courses that take us far from what we consider our “real work” (that is, our scholarly writing), it can be hard to sustain a research agenda. This blog has shown various strategies I’ve tried over the years to avoid losing hold on a research interest while embracing and enjoying teaching.  Strategies include reflections on the contrast between hard-won measures to defend workers’ rights (such as Labor Day, est. 1894), and the modern-day imperative to keep businesses open 24/7 (“On Labor Day 2009”), the parallels between the Arab Spring of 2011 and the French unrest of 1789-94 (“Arab Protesters in the American Classroom”), and the marketing of French Revolution-themed toys and games (“Marie-Antoinette Action Figure”).

After six years on this blog, I’ve concluded that the best way to refresh curiosity about a topic is not necessarily to read more scholarly tomes, but rather to let your mind roam and unearth analogies farther afield. This weekend is a perfect example. Inspired by Tobias Boes, whose work I’ve been reviewing as part of a writing group we both belong to, I took the time to read  Thomas Mann’s story, “Death in Venice”  (1911).*

Wow.  Although I’m a little embarrassed that it took me so long to discover “Death in Venice,” in a way I’m glad. (What a waste to make 19-year-olds read this! How can they relate to it, except maybe to be creeped out by the old guy’s lecherous gaze on the handsome young Tadzio?)  I’m glad I waited until this moment, on the heels of my 40th high school reunion in Seattle this summer. After seeing my classmates face-to-face, and learning about the ravages that time has dealt our bodies and hearts, I can certainly identify with a character who inhabits an aging body that nevertheless continues to feel  the sweet old pull of desire.

A psychic “revolution” is what jars the protagonist (Aschenbach) out of his growing obsession with the Polish Adonis he admires every morning on the beach. It springs from his sense of propriety. It reminds him of the pleasant fullness he feels when gazing upon the awards he’s won, and confirms his superiority over everybody else. As the character thinks: “‘[Tadzio] is delicate, he is sickly … He will most likely not live to grow old.'” Thrilled by that weakness, which restores his mastery over the forbidden object of his desire, Aschenbach’s mind seeks out reasons to flee. As Mann notes, “He got out at San Marco , had his tea in the Piazza, and then, as his custom was, took a walk through the streets. But this walk of his brought about nothing less than a revolution in his mood and an entire change in all his plans” (34-35).

Thereafter the city turns ugly; the lagoon is “foul-smelling” and the narrow streets are described as inhabited by a “hateful sultriness” full of smells hanging low, “like exhalations, not dissipating” (35). Wandering through the crowds, Aschenbach ends up in the poor quarter, where “beggars waylaid him, the canals sickened him” until “he reached a quiet square, one of those that exist at the city’s heart, forsaken of God and man; there he rested awhile on the margin of a fountain, wiped his brow, and admitted to himself that he must be gone” (35).

Now, readers of “Death in Venice” will know that this revolution does not produce the results which seem inevitable. Despite his decision to flee the pestilence—and the frightening sensuality coursing in his veins–Aschenbach does not leave Venice. Rather he changes his mind again a couple pages later. He returns to the beach, the dining room, and the streets, stalking Tadzio and hungrily seeking chances to live in his presence, possibly to exchange words, or a touch.  He chooses to admit, for once, that he feels something for someone, and to live in the moment, dangerously, boldly, without a plan.

The moment is potent. It symbolizes his—that is the elite’s—false sense of transcendence over existence. It suggests the fallacy of choosing to experience life as an observer rather than as a fully engaged human being, with one’s flaws and longings as well as one’s finer points in full sight. The fact that he refuses the bourgeois moment of “revolution” (that is, revulsion and flight from humanity) to pursue his deepest longings may cause readers pain, but it should also force us to think about our own habits of repression and sublimation. It should make us think twice about who we grace with compassion and who we revile, and why.

Where others use the word as a synonym for upheaval, Mann seems to use the word “revolution” to signify a kind of resistance against life’s fleshy, smelly messiness and joy, a choice for the comfortable non-engagement of the academic, the ascetic, the genius, or saint.  I’m still not sure that I understand where this is leading, but the fact that I can’t stop thinking about it is reason enough to be glad.

*Thomas Mann, “Death in Venice” in Death in Venice and Seven Other Stories, trans. H.T. Lowe-Porter (New York: Vintage Books, 1963).

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